If you didn’t already know, you might be surprised to discover that brandy is distilled from fermented fruit juice, as in apricot brandy, or from wine. It is a strong drink, 70-120 alcohol proof, that probably dates from the 6th century when the Chinese began heating wine for sterilization. By the 15th century Armagnac was being produced in France and by the middle of the 17th century ‘Brandywine’ was first named by the Dutch, as Brandewijn, which you could roughly translate as ‘burned wine.’
Traditionally consumed after dinner as a digestif, it’s quite a task to find your way around the different brands, the aging process and the merits of each type. Here are a few tips to help you become a brandy connoisseur.
What makes brandy different?
Brown liquors, such as whiskey, are often grain-based, typically rye or barley, however, brandy is an exception as it is grape-based. It gets its flavor and color from the cask or barrel in which it ages. In fact, you could make brandy by distilling almost any sugary liquid, for instance, Calvados is made from apples, and other popular fruits for brandy are peach and pear.
The types you are most likely to encounter include:
American brandy (such as applejack from the United States)
Apple brandy, such as Calvados (French)
Brandy de Jerez (Spanish)
Eaux-de-vie (French for ‘waters of life’ and refers to young, pale brandies)
Today, brandy is made in many parts of the world, including Armenia, Turkey, Japan and South Africa.
How to drink brandy
If you thought brandy was only taken neat in snifters, you need to think again. While elegant brandy glasses are beautiful to look at and perfectly designed to sit comfortably in your hand, letting your brandy breathe and warm to room temperature, increasingly brandy is being used in cocktails as well as in cuisine. Among the most popular cocktails are:
Armagnac and Cognac
Armagnac and Cognac are the acknowledged King and Queen of brandies and their production has to adhere to strict rules about the type of grapes to be used and how, as well as for how long, they are aged. Named after their particular regions in France, Armagnac is the older of the two although Cognac has become more popular.
Cognac is double distilled in copper stills and is then aged for a minimum of two years in oak barrels from the Limousin region of France. The longer Cognac is aged, the deeper the color becomes and you can tell from the label how long that is:
The youngest brandy, at least two years old, is marked V.S. for ‘very special.’
At four years old, the label V.S.O.P. tells you the contents are ‘very special old pale.’
O. signifying ‘extra old’ used to be aged for a minimum of six years, however, this changed to 10 years in 2016. It’s also known as ‘Napoleon’ brandy.
There is a further category for premium Cognac aged for longer than this marked Hors d’Age, which roughly translates as ‘ageless’ or ‘beyond years.’ Often the liquor will have aged for between 30 and 60 years.
Armagnac is more affordable for most people than cognac and is made via a single distillation process in column stills, much like those used in the production of whiskey. With a classification system similar to the one used for cognac there are nevertheless some important differences. With Armagnac V.S.O.P. signifies a minimum of five years rather than four, X.O. is aged for at least six years while Hors d’Age must be at least 10 years old.
Today you’ll find many different types of brandy across the states, from New York to San Francisco.
The Catoctin Creek Distilling Company, for example, was the first legal distillery in Loudon County since prohibition and makes 1757 Virginia Brandy, a pear brandy known as Pearousia, and several other fruit brandies including apple and a peach brandy.
There are plenty of other small American companies producing delicious brandies, including two in California, Germain-Robin in Ukiah and Osocalis, known for its Rare Alambic Brandy, in Santa Cruz. Copper & Kings, based in Louisville Kentucky is another American brandy producer worth checking out.